The ‘La La Land’ star — who quit high school during a ninth-grade epiphany — reveals how pursuing acting saved her from a childhood of anxiety, where that trademark red hair comes from (Judd Apatow?!) and learning how to deal with fame: “It terrified me.”
It’s a rainy Monday afternoon, and Emma Stone is ensconced at a corner table at the restaurant inside the Sunset Tower Hotel. Her enormous green eyes survey the dining room — “Is that Paul Thomas Anderson?” she wonders about a scruffy patron at another table (it isn’t) — as she picks nervously at a hummus and veggie platter. She says she’s doing her best “not to think about the Oscars,” but who is she kidding? The nominations will be announced in less than 24 hours. Of course she’s thinking about the Oscars.
“I’m sure somebody will call me and let me know what happens in the morning,” she says. “Probably my mom — it always tends to be my mom.” Then, she quickly adds, “not that I’m expecting to get nominated. It could easily go the other way. Anything can happen.”
Stone got nominated, all right. In fact, La La Land picked up 14 nominations Jan. 24 — tying the record with Titanic and All About Eve — including best picture, best director (for Damien Chazelle) and, as everyone but Stone fully expected, best actress. Her turn as Mia, an aspiring starlet who falls for a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling, who also got a nomination, for best actor) while singing and dancing across a contemporary Los Angeles landscape (so lovingly shot, even the gridlock looks dreamy), has the 28-year-old redhead riding shotgun on an awards-season juggernaut that started at the Venice Film Festival in August and has continued through Telluride and Toronto and the Golden Globes (where on Jan. 8, Stone, Gosling and Chazelle all won trophies) and now is hurtling toward that ultimate pot of gold known as Oscar night.
“I’ve never been part of anything like it,” says Stone of the campaign for the film, which has grossed $175 million worldwide so far. “I mean, we went to Venice with Birdman” — the 2015 best picture winner for which she earned her first Oscar nomination, for best supporting actress — “but nothing like this. This is a new world. I’m not complaining because I love this film — it’s fun to talk about it — but I’ve been doing interviews about this movie for almost six months.”
She takes a nibble of hummus and gamely prepares to do one more.
Stone was 14 years old, sitting in a ninth grade history class in Scottsdale, Ariz., when she decided, then and there, to move to L.A. to become an actress. “I had this Howard Beale-like moment,” she says of the epiphany, referencing Peter Finch’s character’s psychotic breakdown in Network. “It’s the last period of the day, and I have a revelation that I needed to move to Los Angeles as soon as possible because that’s where I needed to go. I know, it was crazy.”
Even crazier, the budding thespian, who had zero exposure to movie or TV cameras, was able to convince her parents to let her go. She rushed home from school and started working on a PowerPoint presentation she titled “Project Hollywood.” Then she called her mom and dad into her bedroom and pitched them her plan: She and her mother would decamp for L.A., where she’d be home-schooled between auditions while her father stayed in Scottsdale to run his successful building contracting business. “It’s nuts that they agreed to it,” admits Stone with a laugh. “I don’t condone it. Everybody should go through high school and graduate.”
Then again, it may have been savvy parenting. Stone had been a nervous child from early on, prone to panic attacks and debilitating shyness. “It’s just the way I’m wired,” she says with a shrug. Her parents put her into therapy at 7, which helped. But what helped even more was the youth theater where Stone began spending her after-school hours. She found that stepping into other skins, particularly with improv comedy, made her feel less frightened about the world and gave her an outlet to interact with others. “I think my parents saw that acting was the thing that made me fulfilled and happy,” she says.
So, shortly after her 15th birthday, in 2004, Stone and her mom launched phase one of Project Hollywood. They moved into Park La Brea Apartments, next to the tar pits, and began the grind of auditions. Right away, she had beginner’s luck, landing the Laurie Partridge role on VH1’s pilot for The New Partridge Family. The show never got picked up (YouTube has a snippet of “Emily” singing “We Belong”), but some good came out of it; it’s where Stone met her manager, Doug Wald, who still reps her today. She also made some lasting friendships among the cast. “In fact, one of the guys on the show named Dave is coming over tonight to watch The Bachelor,” she notes.
There were a couple of other early appearances around that time — like an episode of Malcolm in the Middle — but the gigs were sporadic and didn’t pay the bills once she was old enough to start paying her own bills. Like her character in La La Land, though, Stone stuck with it. She took a job at a gourmet dog-biscuit bakery near Park La Brea (“They were made with human-quality ingredients, but they still tasted like dog food”) while continuing to scrounge for acting work.
Then, in 2007, at 19, she caught her first real break, getting cast as Jonah Hill’s love interest in Superbad. The small but scene-stealing role finally put her on Hollywood’s radar and also inspired a cosmetic change that would alter the course of her career: It was then, at the suggestion of producer Judd Apatow, that Stone first started dying her naturally blond hair its trademark ruby hue. After Superbad, the offers started dropping into her lap — a gig in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, another opposite Anna Faris in The House Bunny, another with Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson in Zombieland — and finally, in 2009, her first starring role in the surprisingly witty teen comedy Easy A. “We met a lot of people for the part — people who are big stars now — but I knew right away she was the one,” recalls director Will Gluck. “The whole movie is Emma. She’s onscreen the whole time. There was nowhere to hide.”
Playing a hapless but bighearted high school student who helps burnish the reputation of her geekier classmates by pretending to have slept with them, Stone in Easy A was preposterously engaging, a sort of career-making breakout that instantly opened doors all over town. So, naturally, she left town and moved to New York. “I started to feel overwhelmed by the energy of Hollywood,” she explains of her decision in 2009, at 21, to flee to the East Coast, where she still lives in an apartment downtown. “I would go places, and all anybody could talk about was the entertainment industry. I just felt too surrounded by that.”
Even in New York, however, Stone found celebrity stressful. “Losing my anonymity after Easy A, it was like being 7 years old all over again,” she says. “It terrified me.” She has gotten better at dealing with fame over the years, learning to manage her fears, just as she did as a child. But potential panic attacks always are looming in the background, waiting to pounce.
The last one she recalls was in 2014 while filming Birdman in New York, although it wasn’t so much a panic attack as an actor-y meltdown. “The tightrope walk of that movie, the pacing and timing — I lost my mind a bit,” she recalls. “I just got to a point where I snapped.” There are other anxiety triggers: Being lifted in the air is problematic (she broke both arms falling off a balance beam when she was 7). Horseback riding — which she’s learning now for her upcoming role in Yorgos Lanthimos’ new Queen Anne period drama The Favourite — also raises issues (“I got knocked off a horse as a kid and haven’t got back on since”). Sports in general can be stressful, although, to prep for Battle of the Sexes, the Billie Jean King biopic she recently finished shooting, she spent several pleasant hours playing catch with the 76-year-old tennis legend (“She reduced the game to straight hand-eye coordination and had me chasing a ball around the court,” says Stone of her lessons with King).
Also, she isn’t all that crazy about talking to journalists. “Before any interview, I have to sit with myself for five minutes and breathe and get centered because I get so nervous,” she confesses. “Interviews are kind of like therapy, except all your answers are being written down and printed. I always want to be on the other side of it. I don’t want to be deconstructed for millions. I’d rather do the deconstructing.”
New York, though, has one therapeutic outlet L.A. doesn’t: Broadway. And at 26 — after cracking into Hollywood franchises with a major role in The Amazing Spider-Man (and dating co-star and now fellow Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield until their breakup in October 2015; she declines to discuss her current romantic status) and stretching her dramatic chops in Tate Taylor’s civil rights drama The Help as well as acting in two back-to-back Woody Allen movies (Magic in the Moonlight and Irrational Man) — she made her live stage debut in Cabaret. The reviews were glowing (“scintillating,” raved The New York Times, while the Daily News gushed that Stone “made the production blaze with intensity”). Her performance also caught the eye of a certain hotshot young Hollywood director — soon to be nominated for his drummer drama, Whiplash — who was in town searching for just the right actress to star in his next big idea, a $30 million romantic throwback to the sorts of song-and-dance pictures that MGM and RKO used to make.
“I was looking for a combination of things,” Chazelle tells THR. “I needed someone with comic abilities who could pull off the lighter aspects of the movie — a latter-day version of Carole Lombard or Katharine Hepburn. But I also needed someone capable of tremendous vulnerability. There’s this open-wound aspect of the character, and I needed an actor who could really make you see them bleed emotionally.”
Originally, Emma Watson was going to do the bleeding, while Miles Teller, Chazelle’s leading man in Whiplash, was set to play Gosling’s part. But negotiations over Teller’s paycheck dragged on, and Watson ended up bolting to star in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake. So, during Thanksgiving 2014, Chazelle met with Stone at a diner in Brooklyn and, over chicken pot pies, pitched the star his plan to make an old genre new again.
“I was very sick,” Stone recalls of the meal. “My voice was gone, and I was struggling to get through the shows — I was still doing Cabaret — and the idea of doing another musical was like, ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind.’ After Cabaret, I wasn’t sure I would ever sing or dance again.” But Chazelle persisted, again meeting with Stone in her dressing room, bringing demo tracks of Justin Hurwitz’s score and walking her through how he hoped to shoot each production number. The fact that Chazelle also was talking to Gosling for the film must have helped melt some of Stone’s reluctance; she had co-starred with him in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love and again in 2013’s Gangster Squad.
After three months of rehearsals, the 40-day shoot began in August 2015, starting with that traffic-stopping opening sequence at L.A.’s 105-110 freeway interchange. Exactly one year later, Stone, Gosling and Chazelle were in Italy for the movie’s debut at the Venice Film Festival. It got a standing ovation, and Stone won the festival’s best actress trophy, the first of a slew of awards the film has picked up along the way to its current 14 Oscar nominations. Of course, the campaign has hit an occasional snag — La La Land didn’t get nominated for the ensemble trophy at the SAG Awards, and there was that on-camera awkwardness at the Globes, when Stone accidentally hug-blocked Chazelle’s date when he won best director (“It maybe needed a little more choreographing,” says Chazelle of the moment). But at this writing, most Oscar prognosticators pick La La Land — and Stone — as frontrunners at this year’s Academy Awards.
And that, not surprisingly, makes Stone very nervous. “That kind of stuff is amazing and an honor and very crazy, but it’s something that I can get into too much of a tizzy about,” says the actress, slinking down in her chair. “Although I did have a day in October when I got myself really freaked out …”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.